Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Power play between China and India puts Sri Lanka on strategic map

Jason Burke - India and Sri Lanka have signed a series of aid, economic and diplomatic deals, the latest move in an increasingly intense struggle between New Delhi and Beijing for influence over the island nation.

The signing took place on the first day of a visit to the Indian capital by the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The deals range from loans for big infrastructure projects, including the building of railways, to agreements to share electricity and boost cultural exchanges.

Dubbed ''the new Great Game'', in reference to the strategic rivalry between Russia and Britain in Central Asia during the 19th century, the battle between China and India for primacy in the Indian Ocean is set to be one of the big themes of the coming decades, analysts say.

Sri Lanka's geographic position is its main draw.

''China wants to be the pre-eminent power in Asia, and whether Asia ends up multipolar or unipolar will be determined by what happens in the Indian Ocean, '' said Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Most Indian assistance is focused on the north of Sri Lanka, dominated by ethnic Tamils and devastated by years of civil war between the government and Tamil separatists.

New Delhi also announced the opening of consulates in the Tamil-dominated city of Jaffna and, significantly, in the southern town of Hambantota, where Chinese contractors are building a vast deep-water port in a project largely financed by Beijing's lending arm, the Export-Import Bank.

Indian strategists believe the port is a key link in a chain of such projects from Burma to Pakistan, the so-called string of pearls, which seeks to extend China's maritime influence.

Beijing has already embarked on a road-building program north of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, and is helping build a power station. A $US190 million ($225 million) loan to build an international airport in the south has also been agreed. In March, Sri Lanka said China was supplying more than half its construction and development loans.

India's plans in Sri Lanka are complicated by its own sizeable Tamil population, many of whom blame Mr Rajapaksa for high levels of Tamil civilian casualties in the final days of the civil war last year.

© Sydney Morning Herald

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